Like all those who met Patrick Leigh Fermor, his biographer Artemis Cooper found the travel writer and war hero utterly beguiling.
By Allison Pearson
First published in the Daily Telegraph 28 Sep 2012
It’s not usual to fall in love with an 83-year-old man when you are 37, but then Patrick Leigh Fermor was not your usual 83-year-old. It was 1998, and I had been sent to interview Leigh Fermor, the legendary travel writer and war hero. He was returning to Crete, where he had helped the resistance. Not much caring for either travel writing or wars, I was bemused by the assignment. I pictured myself having to look after some dear old boy and trying to get a few dusty stories out of him. Little did I know.
Two days later, I had drunk more in 48 hours than in the previous 20 years, and I think I spent large chunks of our delightful if inconclusive interview asleep in a bar under the Leigh Fermor jacket. I then found myself stumbling up a Cretan hillside with the “dear old boy” ahead, leaping from rock to rock, all the while telling me stories about Greek mythology, Dylan Thomas and Lady Diana Cooper. Did I know her? No. “Absolutely charming. And look at this flower over here, there’s this fascinating thing about its name. Have you ever been to Constantinople?” No, I… “You must be terribly hungry.” Yes, I… “Well, in the war we used to eat grass and snails, and the astonishing thing is…”
Occasionally, my handsome guide would break into song or poetry. By the time we reached a village, and tucked into a meal of melting lamb straight from a spit, I was exhausted but besotted. There was no prospect of getting that evasive, erudite faun to answer my questions, but I didn’t care. I have rarely felt happier. I had been Paddied.
“In Paddy’s company everyone felt livelier, funnier and more entertaining, and the gift never deserted him,” writes Artemis Cooper in her splendid new biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. The book is a primer for those poor souls yet to encounter his work and a valuable, decoding manual for the multitude who believe that Leigh Fermor’s trilogy about his youthful walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul – A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and the long-awaited third volume, The Broken Road (to be published next year) – marks one of the high points of 20th-century English prose.
Artemis Cooper laughs when I tell her my Paddy-crush story (he was always Paddy, never Patrick). Cooper was 17 when she developed a crush on him herself (he was a friend of her father, John Julius Norwich). Paddy was in his fifties. “I thought he was amazing. He had what the Greeks call leventeia – the jokes, the physical courage, the sheer joy of life. What he did to you, he could do that to anyone, both men and women,” she says. “It wasn’t a sex thing. It was the fact he was so curious about everyone, so kind and funny. And devastatingly attractive.”
If it were possible to be libidinous towards the whole world, then Paddy Leigh Fermor was. It wasn’t just a sex thing – though there were lovers aplenty, as Cooper was unsurprised to discover during her research. It was also a lust for experience that began when he was boarded as a baby with a Northamptonshire farmer’s family (his parents were in India). For four years, little Paddy ran wild in the fields, a state of “complete and unalloyed bliss” that ended when his mother (“a beautiful stranger”) returned to England and he was sent to a series of schools, from which he was soon expelled.
Cooper believes that Paddy spent the rest of his life pursuing the freedom and joy of his infancy. Her first chapter is called Neverland, and there was a touch of Peter Pan about her subject. Paddy and his wife, the photographer Joan Rayner, never had children. Cooper points out that Joan, like several women he was drawn to, was older, “a Wendy figure” who organised – and subsidised – his life so the boy wonder could go on flying. The most shocking story in the book comes when Joan, after dinner in Cyprus one night, hands Paddy some cash saying, “Here you are, that should be enough if you want to find a girl.” But more of that later.
I am talking to Artemis Cooper, who is married to the historian Antony Beevor, at the kitchen table of their house in Fulham. Looking much younger than her 59 years, Cooper is a descendant of the famous beauty and Leigh Fermor friend, Diana Cooper. She has her granny’s bluebell eyes as well as a dreamy look that belies a biographer’s forensic intelligence. Was it daunting, trying to tell the life story of a man who had told that story so brilliantly himself?
“It was sooo daunting,” she sighs. “Paddy had this enormous reserve, which he covered with a torrent of dazzling talk. And you think, ‘How am I going to get the other side of the waterfall, into the cave behind?’ ”
Cooper enjoyed many face-to-face interviews with him before his death, at the age of 96, in June last year. But such meetings could be infuriatingly unproductive. Leigh Fermor came from a generation that viewed talking about oneself with the deepest suspicion. Paddy never dwindled into anecdotage – he was still lapping up fresh stories in his eighties – but Cooper says he was happiest refining formal set-pieces rather than delving into more personal stuff. “There are certain things he loves talking about,” she smiles, “like that story about kidnapping the German general on Crete, but then I ask about his feelings and he completely clams up.”
She still speaks of Paddy in the present tense, and I understand why. It’s hard to accept all that springer-spaniel energy and the fabulous library of a mind are gone, and not writing at home in Kardamyli, the house that the Leigh Fermors built in Greece after decades of nomadic travels.
The incredible Paddy story about kidnapping a German general has the unlikely virtue of being true (see the Telegraph’s Review section tomorrow). It was immortalised in the film Ill Met By Moonlight. Paddy was played by Dirk Bogarde, though, for my drachma, the original was even more dashing, looking like Errol Flynn – who was, Cooper’s biography reveals, an old mucker of Paddy’s. Of course he was. Who wasn’t?
It was another heroic tale – swimming the Hellespont, love affair with a princess – to add to the Paddy mythology. Readers of A Time of Gifts have often wondered how the author, who was in his sixties when he sat down to write it, could possibly remember in such detail a journey he had made when he was barely 18. Artemis nods: “I said to Paddy, ‘Look, there seems to be this discrepancy here between two versions of how you got across the great Hungarian plain. In one version, you’re riding and in the other there’s no horse at all.’” She says Paddy admitted to “having smudged the facts a little. I did ride a fair amount, so I decided to put myself on horseback for a bit. I felt the reader might be getting bored of me just plodding along. You won’t let on, will you?”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh, no, I won’t LET ON. I’m only your biographer, for heavens sake!”
In the book, Cooper charitably calls this “just one instance of the interplay of Paddy’s memory and his imagination”, although playing fast and loose with the facts would be another interpretation. No matter. A Time of Gifts becomes more, not less, of a tale as you start to wonder how tall it is.
Knowing Paddy as a friend was sometimes a constraint on her probing. “I didn’t want to upset him. He would never talk about the women in his life.” Eventually, she deduced that whenever he said of a woman, “we were terrific pals”, he had been to bed with her.
The book reveals love affairs with Ricki Huston (ex-wife of John, the director) and Lyndall Passerini Hopkinson (daughter of Antonia White). “They aren’t necessarily the most interesting of his love affairs, there were loads of others; they just happened to be the two I had letters for on both sides.” She smiles. “Considering Paddy’s success with the ladies, it’s amazing that no children came out of the woodwork!”
Indeed, the Leigh Fermors had an open relationship. Joan announced she wasn’t going to have sex with Paddy any more but “she didn’t expect him to remain celibate”. That was many years into their loving relationship, but still a fair while before they actually married in 1968.
Cooper worries about what Paddy would have thought of the book. “I think he’d be horrified by certain bits. Horrified that I’ve broken faith with him and divulged secrets.”
I don’t agree. In the final weeks of his life, Artemis Cooper read A Time of Gifts to Paddy. The body may have been failing, but that great writing brain was still refining, still asking for a “but” to be changed to a “yet”. When he died, she raced to his side. “I had half an hour with him before the undertaker arrived. I found a copy of A Time of Gifts and I put it in his hands.” She is crying now. We are both crying.
On the front of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is the photograph of the most glorious, sensitive, scholarly and dashing man it’s possible to imagine. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.
‘Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure’ by Artemis Cooper is available to purchase here.